Prof Blog

Prof's English Blog

15 November 2014
The same but different

You would think that British and American English would be merging into a single language by now. After all, there are few Britons who do not watch at least one or two US television programmes every week, and US English is also common in paperback books, pop songs and the speech of celebrities. Yet despite this, the Atlantic Ocean remains as much a linguistic divide between the two nations as it is a physical one. Britons and Americans continue to adhere stubbornly to their own versions of the language.

On a personal note I noticed this when I ordered a burger with chips while on a recent visit to the USA. As a Brit, I expected that the burger would come with the usual potato sections fried to a tasty golden brown. Instead beside the burger was a little bag of what a Briton would call 'crisps'. Had I wanted 'chips' in the British sense, I should have asked for 'fries'.

Yet even the difference between individual words is slight compared to the difference in colloquial expressions. Suggest to an American that something is worth 'taking a butcher's at' and that American will look around for a dealer in pork chops. In fact, the term means that something's worth looking at or considering. There was also a recent case of a Briton who was charged in the USA for homophobic remarks when he loudly remarked that he could 'kill a fag'. It took a while to sort out that 'fags' can mean 'cigarettes' in the UK, and a desire to kill one simply means the speaker is desperate for a smoke.

In the same way, some idioms are rooted in the native culture and just can't travel. A Briton would not talk of 'sophomore mistakes' because the British education system does not have sophomores, while the verb 'quarterbacking' in the sense of organizing who goes where and does what only works in a country where football teams include quarterbacks.

In short, despite technical advances, even in an era of instant communication, Britain and the USA seem doomed to remain what George Bernard Shaw called 'two countries divided by a common language'.
15 September 2014
Me, myself, I.

How many times have you heard these usages?

'I said 'me' when he asked if anyone wanted to go to the restaurant'. Or 'Fred and myself went to the restaurant.' How about this one? 'The waiter told Fred and I that the restaurant was closed for renovations.'

The thing with all of these usages is that they are technically incorrect, but used so frequently that they have a good chance of becoming standard English in the coming decades. While this will not be a problem for the average English speaker - who is already happily (mis)using the personal pronoun in these ways, it's a nightmare for grammarians, who are going to have to write some odd exceptions into the rule book.

Let's see. 'The personal pronoun has a subject form 'I' and an object form 'me' and a reflexive form 'myself'. However, when used alone, the personal pronoun takes the object form 'me', instead of the subject form 'I'. e.g. 'Who's there?' 'Me.' However, if the pronoun is combined with a verb in the short answer it keeps the subject form. e.g. 'Who likes ice cream?' 'I do.'

Also, when there are two objects in a sentence, the forms 'I' or 'myself' may be randomly substituted for 'me'. So for example 'He told Fred and I/myself' is acceptable, while these pronouns without another object ('He told I/myself') are obviously wrong.'

There are a number of such oddities developing in modern English. In an earlier post, I pointed out that 'less' has become an accepted substitute for 'fewer' but 'much' is never used in place of 'more'. Why is 'There are less cars on the road these days' acceptable, but 'There are much cars on the road these days' is still wrong?

Perhaps English is becoming more of a free-form language, in which some regular grammar structures become optional. If so there are two ways to regard this development - the language is becoming more flexible and tolerant of individual expression, or it is sliding down the slippery slope towards inchoate madness.

Me, I'm keeping my opinion to myself.
15 July 2014
Another reason to learn English (or Greek)

'Why learn English?' a student asked me recently, pointing out that translation programs are getting better and better all the time. Well, English certainly helps you communicate with others. An amazing amount of English language communication is between people who both don't speak English as a first language. It's how Germans talk to Portuguese. However, learning English is of value even if the words never leave your own head.

As this blog has pointed out before, learning a new language involves learning a new way to think. English, with its flexibility, subtleties and ambivalent meanings involves a different mindset to, say, Latin which is more rigid, yet allows for remarkably compressed meaning and - in the hands of an expert - can make linguistic structures of beauty. The important thing is that your brain has to develop to accommodate these different thought techniques. Researchers now know that bilingualism forces the brain to develop an entire set of command and control circuitry so that for example, English-speaking Germans the verb at the end of the sentence do not place. And the result of all the extra cerebral wiring is that 'cognitive impairment' is reduced as one ages.

There's a bunch of almost a thousand Britons called the Lothian Birth Cohort. Various aspects of their lives have been studied ever since they entered the world in 1936. Now that this group is approaching 80 years old the effects of ageing are becoming clear - and one effect is that bilingual senior citizens have more active brains than their monolingual contemporaries. So one reason for learning English rather than using a translation program is that in your old age you'll still remember how to use the translation program.

In the second century BC, Cato the Elder only learned Greek late in life (after which he started embellishing his speeches with oratory lifted from the Greek historian Thucydides). Cato grasped instinctively what modern researchers are now proving. In terms of improving brain function, the important thing is not when you start learning a second language, its just that you do it at all. And if you're a non-English speaker, then for utility convenience and pure brain-stretching potential, you might as well learn English.
10 May 2014
The War on Hyperbole

The other day I gave my order to the waitress who responded by saying 'Perfect!'. Then she trundled off to get my food, leaving me to wonder what exactly had been 'perfect' about the process of asking for a three-egg omelette. Of course, 'perfect' here meant nothing like 'absolute and ideal' which the word actually means, but instead meant 'all right, okay'.

Inflation in language is increasing, as inflation is wont to do. There was a time when 'incredible' meant unbelievable, instead of merely remarkable, and an 'incredible person' was someone who could not be believed or trusted rather than a person to admire. In marketing 'incredible' has come to mean something like 'average' as the 'incredible' offers on TV demonstrate every night. Along the same lines, I note that a firm is now advertising its new 'plusPro' technology in advertisements. Perhaps they should get right ahead of the competition by using all the meaningless buzzwords in one go with a 'new superElite Ecoplus Platinumpro Extra' brand?

Perhaps the most gratuitously over-used word in the modern lexicon is 'war'. Wars used to be simple. Nasty, bloody and terrifying; but simple. They were periods of temporary madness when societies tried very hard to kill each other by any means possible. However, 'war' is the kind of evocative word which media and politicians love to abuse. So we got the 'war on drugs' which was less of a 'let's kill everybody type' of war, but was a mix of police actions and legislation. This was followed by the 'war on terror' which would be admirable, except that when you think about it, the phrase is pretty meaningless. Then we moved on to the 'war on women' which apparently means that statistical analysis shows that women in some situations get paid less than men. Deplorable certainly, but not what someone in the trenches a century ago would have recognized as warfare.

Recently I read a newspaper report where a city council had made door-handles compulsory on new buildings because they are easier for handicapped people to use. This has become a 'War on Doorknobs'. Understandable perhaps, because 'Unfavourable administrative policy' is more accurate but likely to attract fewer readers. Nevertheless we may need a new word for the real thing which involves bombs, death and bullets rather than changes to subsection c(2). of page 241 of the building code.

Suggestions anyone?
5 March 2014
The Juvey-whatsit thing ...y'know?

The other day I was reading an old article from the now defunct magazine 'Punch'. The text felt rather like hard work, and it took a moment or three to work out why. The article was from 1910, and therefore the language was slightly archaic. That was one thing - but the other was that the range of vocabulary and the sophistication of the grammar was immensely greater than is usual in modern English. Here's a random sentence:

From journalism he passed to politics, but here too the stormy petrel element in his character militated against enduring success.

Today a similar report would read something like 'After journalism he tried politics, but he kept getting into trouble there too, so the career change was not a success.' This is a trend which those who study the evolution of English have noted for a while. The language is getting simpler - or 'juvenilized' as academics put it. Long words and complex structures are dropping out of use, and forms once used by children and teenagers are now standard English. Consider these two phrases: 'Were I to ask to whom he had spoken...', or 'It was I'.

In modern language the subjunctive, the object personal pronoun and the subject personal pronoun would be dropped or used incorrectly (for a given value of 'incorrectly'), and the preposition shoved to a more convenient part of the sentence. The end result would sound like this: 'If I asked who he had spoken to ...' and 'It was me'.

There are two trends working against sophisticated English - one is the anti-intellectual trend (oh, the irony) fashionable among the intelligentsia, and the other is the media's fascination with youth and 'teen-speak'. Also, most media try to reach the widest possible audience, and do this by aiming at the lowest common denominator. In terms of language this means that the denominator gets lower and more common over time.

Yet oddly enough, part of the effect is to make the audience work harder. The other day a 'celeb' remarked in an interview 'It was so like ... you know. His thing is kind of unreal, so incredible. It's just all him.' Good luck with extracting the meaning from that. I'm sticking with the 1910 crossword.

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